The Episcopal Church of Sudan in War and Peace

Article excerpt

The history of the Episcopal Church of Sudan belongs to chapter three of the history of the church that lives upstream from the falls in the River Nile.

The first church above the falls was the church in ancient Rush, a daughter of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, Egypt, and the Byzantine Empire. This church grew from Christian monks seeking refuge south of Egypt, and from bishop-led missions sent by the Byzantine emperor. This church prayed in Greek and in the languages of the Nubian kingdoms. Baptism in the later Nubian period often included making the sign of the cross on a person's forehead with a red-hot iron. This Nubian Church flourished for centuries as a state church. It declined as migration and new caravan routes shrank the economy. In 1500 only architectural ruins and linguistic traces remained when Muslim Arab forces from Egypt consolidated control. Yet today's Sudanese Christians know very firmly that the so-called Ethiopian eunuch whom the Apostle Philip met and baptized while travelling on the Gaza road was not Ethiopian. He was a court official of a Nubian kingdom located near today's Rhartoum. That was chapter one.1

The second church above the falls arose from the work of Roman Catholic missionaries, particularly from the Austrian Empire. In 1848, Sudan with Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire. An East African and Red Sea trade in human beings was flourishing. The genius of the Roman Catholic missions was to empower runaway and freed slaves on the periphery of Africa to become evangelists back to the heart of Africa. Their slogan was, "The regeneration of Africa by Africans." Roman Catholics labored to create schools and agricultural stations in the Nuba Mountains and the valley of the White Nile. All these institutions went down to dust when a messianic Muslim reformer arose in 1881 on an island in the Nile to drive the Turks and all ancillary foreigners out of Sudan. This mystic and brilliant revolutionary, the Mahdi, appealed to the highest authority:

There is no god but God

And Muhammad is the Prophet of God

And Muhammad al Mahdi is the successor of God's Prophet.

As you know if you have seen Laurence Olivier playing the Mahdi and Charlton Heston playing the heroic English resister in the movie Khartoum, the Mahdi prevailed. The second church in Sudan came to an end. That was chapter two.

The third church in Sudan is the one we have come to know in our day as a companion and a friend who lives by the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead. There were years in the 1980s and 1990s when some of us feared that civil war, combined with schism, might once again kill off this church. But the third chapter, after violent death and slow death have done their worst time and again,, seems to be a story of a church rising again and again to new life.

Chapter three began in 1898, when European imperialism was at its zenith. A British and Egyptian combined military force defeated the Mahdi's successor government. An Anglo-Egyptian Condominium government was installed. This precarious alien authority resisted restoring real estate in Khartoum to the returning Roman Catholic missions. It resisted Protestants interested in reaching out to Muslims in northern Sudan. The Condominium sought to keep a fragile peace by assigning missionary societies to territorial spheres. The Roman Catholics - under protest - consented to sail their iron steamboat up a tributary of the White Nile to the territory belonging to the Shilluk people. Presbyterians travelled on rented Nile sailboats and slowly attracted Nuer people to their medical stations and schools. The Church Missionary Society (CMS) appointee Archibald Shaw stuck it out for three decades at Malek in the Anglicans' assigned territory among the Dinkas on the east bank of the White Nile. From one of his hard-won students Shaw earned the epithet, "the white man with the soul of a Dinka." Shaw was also alert and adaptive enough to realize that the church could not be contained by any single ethnic group. …